I suspect that everyone knows that copying is big business in China. Copying can range from specific products to entire stores (as in the case of Apple). But it took a visit to Qingdao to remind me that sometimes all you need is to leverage an existing brand’s equity to make money. You can just take a well-known brand name and stick it on your own product and package.
Intriguingly, the copycats are something of a brand themselves in China. They are collectively known as “Shanzhai.” Historically, shanzhai refers to a mountain stronghold and was used as a metaphor to describe bandits who evaded corrupt authorities to perform deeds they saw as justified. Today, the word refers to manufacturers who copy existing products and seek to evade taxes and legislation.
Many Chinese feel a sense of pride when they see a cheap copy of a Western brand. They believe it reflects well on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Chinese people. And if you can buy something that looks like the real thing but with more features and at half the price, why not? So the Shanzhai are respected more than they are reviled. But as I noted above, you don’t have to actually copy a product in order to benefit at someone else’s expense. Sometimes all you need to do is leverage their brand equity. Chinese companies have become very clever at mimicking more successful brands.
Sometimes the imitation is borderline. Qingdao is located near the famous and beautiful Laoshan District. Home of both the Taoist and Laoshan spring water. above you can see a Laoshan Cola that looks remarkably like the Chinese packaging for Coca-Cola (on the left). It would be easy to mistake one for the other.
Sometimes, however, you find something far more iniquitous. Browsing through the shelves in a corner store in Qingdao, my colleague Derrick Dong and I came across the shampoo brand shown below. At first glance I assumed that Gillette had entered the hair care category in China. But a closer look suggests that this is not a Gillette product at all, since the name actually reads: GITTELLC.
While not directly copying the Gillette name, this clever piece of passing off does initially fool the eye. It is a salutary reminder that a familiar and distinctive look is an important brand asset. Irrespective of the fact that people will eventually realize that the shampoo is not made by Gillette, the initial impression is undoubtedly more positive than it would be otherwise.
Funny enough, this is a lesson that many Chinese companies seeking to build their brand abroad are struggling to deal with. Without an initial familiarity with the brand and what it stands for most, Western consumers will look askance at any brand made in China. Even when the product appears to give them what they need, they will be concerned about its quality and reliability. For many Chinese products this is now a needless concern, but in the absence of brand name recognition, the product must speak for itself or let price do the talking.
So what do you think? Does copying prove the value of a brand?
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